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Irish Dancing

(Irish flag)

Updated: M ay 4, 2007

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[Excerpts from. [Manhattan's Irish Arts Center WWW page.]

Many people today have been introduced to Irish dance through stage productions such as Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. They are unaware that the demanding step dancing performance they are seeing is only one form of Irish dance. Irish dance is not carried by the single thread of its solo performance form. It is a rich tapestry of interwoven solo and social dance forms: the solo step dances and set step dances, the céilí dances that directly reflect several of the forms and movements of the step dances, the set dances that also reflect many of these same movements but retain different aspects from those emphasized in céilí dances, and even the waltzes and other couples dances which are danced by the Irish in forms that reflect the cultural dance heritage. The structural unity of the step, céilí , and set dances was brought home to me in a powerful visual metaphor in a demonstration given by my earliest dance teacher (Megan Downes at the Irish Arts Center). She danced the "lead-around" to reels, gradually varying the emphasis to show the step-dance style, the céilí -dance style, and the set-dance style, smoothly and without any abrupt change in style, showing the strong ties among what may appear at first to be rather different forms of dance.

Céilí Dances

Céilí dances represent an informal tradition of dance that is common to much of humanity since prehistory. Many are structured as sword dances, round dances, line dances, and progressive line dances. The Normans have been credited for introducing the round dance into Ireland around the 12th century. The "rince fada" (long dance) is actually a family of dances, one of which was described in the end of the 17th century as performed by "three persons moving abreast, each of which held the end of a white handkerchief, followed by the rest of the dancers in pairs". The Gaelic Revival in Ireland in the late 19th century destroyed the practice of dancing these dances so effectively that when the Gaelic League decided to resurrect them in the 1920's, they had generally been lost and new dances had to be codified to write the "Ár Rinncidhe Fóirne".

Ceilidh dances are held at the Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco and various places around the Bay Area.

Irish Set Dancing

What Is Set Dancing?

Set dances are danced by four couples, generally (but not always) arranged on the sides of a square. They are generally divided into several (usually 5 or 6, but ranging from 2 to 9) "figures". Unlike the céilí dances, set dances retain and feature strong regional variations in the style of the dance. Sets from Cork and Kerry lean heavily on the jigs and polkas played so well by the musicians of these counties, while the sets from Clare feature the reels of which those people are so fond. Sets, like the Clare Lancers, from North Clare are danced with a smooth, gliding style while those from other parts of Clare are danced with battering reminiscent of that introduced by the dancing masters of old into their step-dancing performed on small platforms.

History of Irish Set Dancing

The Irish Set Dances (as distinguished from the set step dances) are the evolutionary descendants of the Quadrilles danced at the French court in the late 18th and early 19th century and other related dances from Scotland, and elsewhere. These dances were brought to Ireland and taught by the early dancing masters who adapted them to Irish traditional music and modified and elaborated them to show off their dancing prowess. In time, various regions of the country retained and danced the local "set" at crossroads and in homes, even when the Catholic Church used the Public Dance Hall Act of 1935 to try to stamp them out. While the céilí dances have a nearly universal uniformity around the country, the set dances vary widely from place to place. Set dancing survived best in those parts of the country that held most strongly to their traditions. Although the céilí dances were held by some to be more Irish, the only dances that could be found in places like the Kerry gaeltachta were the sets. The Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the Gaelic Athletic Association began to sponsor competitions in the 1950's and 1960's and the 1980's and 1990's have seen a large-scale revival of the popularity of set dancing. Today, we can count approximately 100 different sets gathered from localities in all parts of Ireland, although it has been said that the dancing of only a few of them have never lapsed, including the Caledonian, Connemara, Cashel, and Sliabh Luachra.

The best way to get an appreciation for Irish set dancing is to watch or, even better, to participate. Free set dancing lessons every Thursday in San Francisco:

  • The first Thursday of the month you will find the Comhaltas dancers at the Shannon Arms Pub dancing to the music of Lew Milligan, Barbara Southworth, Tim Reidy and special guests. Shannon Arms, 915 Taraval at 19th Avenue, S.F. For more information call Jim Belcher (925) 947-2666 e-mail or Patrick McManus (415) 242-1646.
  • 2nd, 3rd and 4th Thursdays: - Irish set dancing classes at the Sunset Recreation Center, 28th Avenue and Lawton 7:30pm. Join Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann for set dance classes given by its president and dance teacher, Jim Belcher. E-mail:setdancer@aol.com

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Step Dancing Classes/Instruction ( listed alphabetically)

  • Greene Academy of Irish Dancing with studios in Palo Alto and San Jose,  Sandra Greene (TCRG, ADCRG)  (408) 723-3540.
  • Healy Irish Dance School, 2036 Taraval St., S.F., also in Santa Rosa, Novato, Mill Valley, San Anselmo & Terra Linda. (415) 664-3247, info@healyirishdancers.com.
  • Keenan School of Irish Dancing, in Napa and Sonoma Counties.  Fidlema Keenan (TCRG). (707) 542-1367.
  • Kennelly School of Irish Dance, S.F., Berkeley and Sacramento. The Kennelly School offers classes in San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Gatos and San Bruno. Students range in age from three to adult, and in dance level from beginner through championship. A number of Kennelly School students have won and placed in solo, ceílí and drama categories in the North American Championships. Solo titles are held from the European, Great Britain, British National and All-Scotland championships, and students have also placed in solo and group dancing in World Championship competitions in Ireland.  (415) 665-0554.
  • Murphy's Irish Dancers, covering S.F. and most of the Peninsula. . (415) 587-7133.
  • The Quilter School of Irish Dancing, Alameda classes for children and adults. Celebrating traditional music and dancing! Contact Olive Quilter (510) 521-4369 or e-mail at oliveq@flash.net.
  • Scoil Rince na hEireann, Noe Valley, San Francisco (children & acult classes) under the direction of Vincent O'Connor,TCRG, ADCRG, (415) 626-6015.
  • Whelan Academy of Irish Dance, Millbrae, S.F., San Mateo. (415) 564-9301, and 731-7955.

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